NAACP chief's protest remarks prompt rift with - and within - Jewish community

Dennis Powell, head of the NAACP Berkshire Branch, says critics of his remarks about police training have distorted his intent, which was to "tell the truth" and problem-solve.

GREAT BARRINGTON — Last weekend's Black Lives Matter protest has touched off a skirmish between the Jewish community and various groups over comments made by the leader of the local NAACP about American police receiving training in Israel.

Dennis Powell, president of NAACP's Berkshire Chapter, had raised the issue in his speech to a crowd of more than 1,000, as the nation narrowed its focus on policing in the weeks after George Floyd's death.

In recent weeks, claims circulated that police might have learned a deadly neck restraint from Israeli forces at training programs supported by American groups, including the Anti-Defamation League.

The link to Israel roiled the Berkshires' Jewish community, as did the reporting of it in The Eagle. Some say it is unfounded, and a stretch to single out Israel for what is a broader, longstanding American problem of police brutality and systemic racism. They say they remain committed to the Black Lives Matter movement, yet say they are wary of what they think could be construed as an anti-Semitic trope.

In the wake of the comments, Powell said he's been "bombarded" with rebukes and accusations. Critics, he said, have distorted his intent, which was to "tell the truth" and problem-solve after a Jewish member of the NAACP sent him an article about the issue.

"Isn't that what protesting is all about?" he told The Eagle. "To identify what's wrong and try to fix it? And this was about police brutality. "

The turbulence following the rally prompted Berkshire County's Jewish leaders, as well as New England's ADL director, to issue a collective statement to the Jewish community saying that while it is "unhelpful to portray as fact unfounded assertions," it does not compromise the community's commitment to active antiracist work through its philosophy of Tikkun Olam, Hebrew for "repairing the world."

The statement, also signed by six rabbis, told congregants not to get "distracted from the essential work at hand," which includes "amplifying the voices of Black and Brown people, including Jews of color."

Last Saturday's protests around the country followed the initial unrest sparked by the death of Floyd in Minneapolis after a police officer held him to the pavement with his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly 9 minutes.

During his impassioned speech, Powell told those assembled that the restraint used on Floyd is the modern version of lynching. He also went on to talk about an article in the UK publication, Morning Star, which links the neck restraint to training learned in Israel. The June 1 article also noted that Amnesty International had traced militaristic policing to training with Israeli National Police.

A spokesman for the Israeli National Police denied this in the Jerusalem Post this week, saying "there is no procedure that allows an officer of the Israel Police to carry out an arrest by placing a knee on the neck of a suspect."

Yet police in a number of states — including Minnesota and Massachusetts — have undergone the broader training, according to Amnesty.

The nonprofit Jewish Voice for Peace has tried to raise awareness about the training programs with its "Deadly Exchange" campaign. And its regional branch issued a statement Friday thanking Powell for not letting the Jewish community "off the hook to do the hard work we need to do in our own communities."

The group asked that the Jewish community "acknowledge the ways that white supremacy differently affects Jews, Black people, and Black Jews who live at the intersection of these identities, and explore ways to move powerfully together toward a world without racism or antisemitism."

Powell had asked his "Jewish brothers and sisters" to write groups like the ADL and ask for a halt to funding the exchange programs, "because our American citizens are not terrorists."

Seminars

Minneapolis police have since banned chokeholds. But it is still unclear whether neck restraints like that used on Floyd can be directly traced to Israeli training. The Minneapolis Police Department did not respond to emailed questions.

Representatives from the ADL did not respond to phone and email messages last week. But after 9/11, ADL and other groups began supporting counterterrorism training of U.S. police.

The ADL also runs extensive programs nationwide — and in Berkshire schools — to combat bigotry, according to its website. And it tracks hate crimes, and also holds counterterrorism seminars in Israel.

Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn attended one of these ADL seminars in 2013. He said the purpose of the trip was to visit cultural sites and understand counterterrorism there.

"Things like security and metal detectors at shopping malls or video surveillance in residential neighborhoods," he said.

He said none of it would be allowed back home.

Wynn also said the department constantly reviews and revises its policies, and is taking a close look at its rules for the use of force.

"Neck or carotid restraints are not in the curriculum at state academies," he said. "If we're engaged in a prone handcuffing, students are taught to avoid the spine and neck ... and they support their own weight ... and as soon as the cuffs go on they remove their weight from a suspect."

He also said the department does not keep tear gas in its inventory.

But some say larger, city departments are more likely to embrace such policing styles.

Minnesota police received training sponsored by the Israeli Consulate in Chicago in 2012, according to the Morning Star article.

And The Intercept reported in 2017 that members of Washington, D.C.'s force was headed there for the ADL seminar, and that a City Council member was opposed, worried about further militarization of the force.

Lamar Greene, a patrol chief with Washington's Metropolitan Police Department, and a member of the force since 1994, told The Eagle that neck restraints aren't allowed.

"Neck restraints have been prohibited by our agency the entire time I have been a member," he said in an email, responding to a question about whether the tactic was learned from Israeli police.

HARD CONVERSATIONS

Still, Powell's comments stung many Berkshire Jews who attended the rally. One called it "heartbreaking." Some said it was simply the timing. Others said that pulling Israel into the discussion triggers fears of rekindling a new wave of anti-Semitism. Some said they would stop supporting the ADL immediately if it is true that it supports training in the use of deadly force. And some recalled the long history of Jews and African Americans working together for change.

"The Jewish community was in the forefront of the civil rights movement, always has been and still is," wrote Barry Shapiro, of New Marlborough, in a letter to the editor. "As just one example, among very many, may I remind Mr. Powell that of the three civil rights workers murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964, two, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were Jews. And they were far from alone."

"In the Berkshires we have a large, Jewish, extremely liberal population," said Florence Kraut, of Richmond. "I felt he was blaming Israel for the abhorrent behavior of American police, and that's on our policemen, that is not on another country. Israel has a lot of problems, but we do to, as we see."

Rabbi Jodie Gordon, of Hevreh of the Berkshires, said that while there can be disagreements, local Jewish leaders are backing the "common core goal" of the movement.

"This doesn't change anything," said Gordon's colleague, Rabbi Neil Hirsch, of Powell's remarks.

Gordon and Powell both say they are looking forward to a conversation they have planned.

Last fall, Powell, Hirsch, Gordon and other community leaders worked together to deal with an outbreak of anti-Semitic incidents at a Great Barrington school.

Powell wants the Jewish community to remember that he is with them, too.

"I've been at the table offering my voice every time I was asked to come to South County when a swastika was carved into a table [and other episodes]," he said. "I was using my voice to heal."

Powell suggested that making deep changes can be messy and painful.

"We've got to have tough conversations," he said. "We can't pick and choose. We all have crosses to bear, and if we're going to get through any of this we need to remember that."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.